Kyle Rittenhouse Is a Product of the Republican Martyr Machine

This is what happens when you have a party that commends armed vigilantism

Police take security measurements during a third night of unrest in Kenosha, Wisconsin, United States. Photo: Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

It’s a pattern ​we’ve seen time and time again: The loudest voices in the Republican Party and conservative media tell the nation that police are failing to maintain law and order, and sympathetic militia movements hear that as a call to action. On Tuesday evening, in Kenosha, Wisconsin, that subtle call-and-response led to bloodshed.

Kenosha had been rocked by tumultuous protests since video circulated of Kenosha police officer Rusten Sheskey firing a gun seven times at point-blank range into Jacob Blake’s back as he tried to get into his van with his children on Sunday. Protests swiftly followed, with peaceful daytime marches followed by clashes with police and destruction of property at night.

Such protests hold an irresistible attraction to right-wing media, including the cottage industry of social media influencers who repackage videos captured at events to serve their constructed narratives of widespread panic in America’s liberal cities, painting demonstrators as reprobates with broad brushstrokes at every turn. Federal government officials like Acting ​Deputy Homeland Security Secretary Ken Cuccinelli​, who helped orchestrate the federal troops in Portland, Oregon, avidly consume this style of media and cite it to justify authoritarian actions against protesters. Claims of chaos are echoed at the highest levels in conservative politics, and civilians who confront these protesters are publicized as heroes in right-wing media.

Mark and Patricia McCloskey, the couple who were charged with criminal felonies for brandishing firearms in June at Black Lives Matter protesters outside their home in Saint Louis, were quickly enrolled in this narrative, embraced by right-wing media and on Monday awarded a speaking slot at the Republican National Convention. Their message: “What you saw happen to us could just as easily happen to any of you who are watching from quiet neighborhoods around our country.” Statements like these are designed to stoke fear in viewers; giving the McCloskeys a major national platform, meanwhile, acted as an endorsement of their actions from the White House.

Claims of chaos are echoed at the highest levels in conservative politics, and civilians who confront these protesters are publicized as heroes in right-wing media.

The next day, Kyle Rittenhouse, a white 17-year-old male, traveled with an illegally purchased semi-automatic rifle from his home in Antioch, Illinois, to the site of protests in Kenosha after a self-described militia group posted a call to arms on Facebook. The next day, Rittenhouse was arrested on charges of first-degree intentional homicide for shooting and killing two protesters and seriously injuring another.

A visual investigation by the New York Times used publicly available videos from the night of the shooting to construct a rough timeline of events. It found that Rittenhouse had gathered with other armed civilians at a Kenosha car dealership. Police rolled by in an armored vehicle and welcomed the militia members, who were out after a citywide curfew, tossing bottles of water to the group. Several people chased Rittenhouse at one point, though the reason for the confrontation remains unclear. Someone fired a gun into the air and Rittenhouse shot him in the head. Rittenhouse was chased while fleeing the scene on foot and appeared to be making a phone call when he tripped and fell on the ground. As people ran toward him, he shot wildly, hitting two others — one person in the chest, the other in the arm. Rittenhouse got up and ran toward Kenosha police officers with his hands up; the police allowed him to leave the scene as protesters yelled at them that Rittenhouse had just shot someone.

In the immediate aftermath of the shooting, conservative media figures heralded Rittenhouse as a heroic patriot who acted in self-defense against unruly individuals. Rittenhouse was one of their own: a Blue Lives Matter aficionado and a supporter of President Donald Trump. Even before the facts about the shooting were clear, several right-wing pundits blamed the shooting on the still-warm bodies of the people Rittenhouse had slain, along with the local government officials they blamed for permitting the protests, to begin with. The portrayal of Rittenhouse as a martyr further intensified after authorities charged him with murder. Rep. Paul Gosar of Arizona tweeted that he believed Rittenhouse was innocent: “The criminals here: Kenosha local government that allows the riots, burning and looting night after night,” Gosar wrote. “Armed citizens defending themselves will fill the vacuum.” Not to be outdone, Fox News primetime host Tucker Carlson asked viewers Wednesday night, “How shocked are we that 17-year-olds with rifles decided they had to maintain order when no one else would?” On Thursday, attorney Lin Wood said he had already assembled a legal team to defend Rittenhouse and is soliciting donations for the effort.

Conservatives have a long history glorifying civilian violence against anti-fascist and anti-racism protesters in the United States. The content is produced as clickbait: short video clips, loud headlines, and memes on social media. For years right-wing social media users and web outlets have made light of car attacks against protesters; the Daily Caller once posted a video montage showing car attacks with the headline “Here’s A Reel Of Cars Plowing Through Protesters Trying To Block The Road.” That montage was deleted after neo-Nazi James Fields murdered Heather Heyer with his vehicle at the 2017 Unite the Right white supremacist gathering in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Conservative media and the movement figures within it have made staunch efforts to whitewash the presence of violent hate groups at protests. Last year, ​Fox News aired a deceptively edited video to omit a far-right demonstrator brandishing a hammer that was wrangled away by anti-fascist demonstrators — instead the network looped video of anti-fascists fighting back and its commentators hyped the threat of “antifa.” Turning Point USA’s Benny Johnson celebrated far-right extremists who were visibly affiliated with the extremist “Boogaloo” movement in a since-deleted tweet. And in 2014, right-wing media turned Cliven Bundy into a folk hero as he led an armed standoff against federal officers.

During the Republican National Convention on Wednesday night, Vice President Pence brought up the death of Oakland police officer Dave Underwood in a way that seemed to insinuate that “rioting and looting” by the left were to blame for his death. “He was shot and killed during the riots in Oakland, California,” Pence said, not mentioning that Underwood was allegedly killed by a far-right extremist.

Conservatives’ embrace of Rittenhouse is as routine as it is appalling. For years, the political right has claimed that Democrat-run regions are lawless. Stories of property destruction and violence spark armed vigilantes to ​take to the streets, feel​ justified ​in actions that escalate civil conflicts, or turn violent.

And as long as conservatives keep cheering on this kind of bloodshed, it’s nearly inevitable that more of it will be produced from their ranks.

Political reporter, tech junkie, and dog owner in Washington, D.C.

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